BY GORDON BALLANTYNE
It is finally the end of the horse show season, and I’m putting another one in the books—more like an entire library by this point. The RV is moored in its final resting place for the season and my chiropractor is expecting my imminent arrival.
My horse show wife and I are celebrating our 15 year wedding anniversary. We alternate years in planning the annual festivities. It wasn’t my year, so beaches and golf resorts were not in the cards. She elected for us to make a pilgrimage to the mothership; no, not Nordstrom’s but Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta, Canada to watch the Masters horse jumping event with some of her barn mates from Starfire Farms in Lakewood Washington.
I have seen Spruce Meadows on television many times over the years with my wife and even grandmother in previous decades; it was required mandatory viewing for both. The television does not do the grounds justice. I have been to many horse show venues and if you combined all of them into one they would still be collectively dwarfed in size and scale by Spruce Meadows sporting its three Grand Prix sized arenas, multiple smaller arenas, schooling rings and turn out areas encompassing a vast 505 acres just outside the Calgary metropolitan area. I thought the Thunderbird show park in Langley, British Columbia was large but it is like comparing a T-ball field to Yankee Stadium.
It was a homecoming for Tami Masters, one of my wife’s trainers who blazed a trail through Spruce Meadows in the 80’s and has competed in all the large arenas including sliding down the hill, jumping the table top and daring the dreaded devil’s dyke obstacles. Here are some observations in my three days at Spruce Meadows:
- This is a Cathedral dedicated to horses and show jumping. It is a veritable maze of shops, horse areas, educational seminars and food courts. Even the barn’s resident shopping professional (who shall remain nameless to maintain plausible deniability) had to purchase an additional bag to take on the plane to house her new treasures.
- It is not like Disneyland—it’s cleaner. So picturesque, even the medians and ditches next to the entry roads are more manicured than my lawn at home.
- The horse show is 100% geared to the spectator’s experience. Most horse shows I have attended cater to the trainers, riders, horses and observers in that order while Spruce Meadows seems to completely reverse that schedule of importance. There is no such thing as a trainer schedule conflict at Spruce Meadows. Miss your scheduled ring time? Too bad. Miss your stable drop off and pick up schedule? Then you go to the back of the line with no exceptions or special treatment.
- The seating ranges from sitting on a blanket on a grassy hill to sitting in fully catered VIP suites to watch the events, and there is a great customer experience available at every price point.
- The horse show has toilets that flush—enough said.
- The top legendary riders are accessible to the fans. Ian Millar, Captain Canada himself (and my grandma’s favorite over the years…”He’s so handsome and distinguished looking”) had a scrum of adoring fans around him. He politely signed autographs, and posed for countless selfies. I have managed to say Hi to Beezie Madden twice in the last three weeks, once at Thunderbird then again at Spruce Meadows where she went on to win the million dollar Grand Prix top prize against 50 of the best riders in the world. I must be her good luck charm, so perhaps she might consider adopting me.
- The cost of flying, staying in a nice hotel, transport, venue VIP tickets and food was still cheaper than competing in a rated show.
- There are an incredible number of local volunteers donating their time to the show. The Calgary community is all in behind this local venue created by the Southern family, and are great ambassadors for their city and their pride shines through.
Spruce Meadows was truly a great experience with the fan and shopping areas separated from the horse and barn areas by the great pub, the Time Fault. It acted as the neutral zone between the two, and my favorite spot to wait while my wife searched for the perfect additions to her horse wardrobe. The events all had high drama that you could hear a pin drop during local hero Eric Lamaze’s final round in the jump off with a chance to unseat Beezie Madden for the top spot. The dock diving event and children’s carrousel music from a block away could easily be heard over the silence of 20,000 fans sitting on the edge of their seats holding their collective breaths willing Eric over every obstacle. Truly a bucket list experience even for me, a non-horse person.
On our plane ride home, my wife told some poor guy to please vacate her assigned seat. Then she quickly realized who it was and burst out, “Oh my god! You’re Kent Farrington!”
The perfect end to a perfect trip.